Commentary | 20 March 2017

'Bishop's strategic passivity won't work'

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review on 18 March 2017. Photo: US Navy

  • Euan Graham

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review on 18 March 2017. Photo: US Navy

  • Euan Graham

Julie Bishop's speech in Singapore has already been dissected by the commentariat, including Hugh White writing for this newspaper. No surprise that White found the speech wanting for failing to adjust to his presumption of an inexorable transfer of power from American to Chinese hands.

Others have zeroed in on the Foreign Minister's robust advocacy of democracy and upfront emphasis on a 'liberal' vision of the 'rules-based order' for the region. That's uncontroversial coming from an Australian foreign minister, but the debate over values and interests in foreign policy has received a jolt with the election of Donald Trump.

Tom Wright, in Australia next week as a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute, claims that Trump 'rejects notions of a liberal international order'. China recoils from the 'rules-based' formulation. One Chinese participant at a conference I subsequently attended in Singapore countered that order flows from power, be it hegemonic or held in balance.

Democracy has suffered illiberal reversals in the region, including in the Philippines where Julie Bishop will have her first meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte. In reply to a question I asked after her lecture, perhaps with that encounter in mind, Bishop intriguingly volunteered that Australia's values and interests are not always aligned.

That is a tension in Australia's foreign policy. But such frankness is helpful for Australia's domestic debate, where a willingness to articulate our national interests is often lacking. And timely, given that Australia's first foreign policy white paper in nearly 15 years is now being drafted. Last year's defence white paper contained over 50 references to 'rules-based' but not a single mention of 'liberal'.

For a speech that looked back at the region's turbulent past as much it looked forward, Bishop was right to doubt the self-dramatising tendency of every generation to believe 'that they are entering a period of immense change and uncertainty – that their time is one of great historical significance.' Given the current hyperbole, this is a necessary corrective, and no contradiction to being 'clear-eyed' about uncertainty and strategic challenges to the prevailing US-backed regional security order, especially from China and North Korea.

Bishop's overarching Darwinian theme was the 'ever-present and relentless' competition that globalisation imposes on 'nations and firms'. We are used to hearing ad nauseum about the opportunities presented by Asia's growth miracle. Bishop broke stonier ground here, questioning the continued viability of the region's export-led model, where too many regional producers are chasing too few consumers in developed markets. 'Older models will not work as well as they have in the past', she warned, leaving those who fail to adapt stuck in a middle-income trap. Even for those that do, presumably Australia included, advances in robotics, automation and artificial intelligence mean that traditional jobs will decline. Bishop singled out Singapore and Australia as a transformative economic partnership, though her claim that only liberal democracies can achieve full prosperity was a stretch too far for the local audience.

Disappointingly, Bishop was less able to relate Australia's Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with Singapore directly to the security space, where the darker side of competition is manifesting in the build-up of military capability and challenges to 'existing territorial or strategic boundaries'.

She was careful to describe China as a 'geo-strategic competitor' of the United States rather than an 'enemy' – a rogue label pinned exclusively on North Korea. Nonetheless, her warning that 'when the strong impose their will on the weaker state, it invariably leads to the latter's resentment of unfair agreements imposed on them' was a boomerang aimed at Beijing's historical victim-hood mentality. Reference to 'more powerful nations' bullying their neighbours similarly left little room for guesswork.

Where Bishop erred, and where Hugh White has a point, was in focusing overly on the United States as a security guarantor, and too little on the direct contribution of Australia and its Asian partners to stability in the region.

Bishop claimed that 'if stability and prosperity are to continue, the United States must play an even greater role as the indispensable strategic power in the Indo-Pacific'. This seems expressly at odds with Trump's core belief that the US is over-extended and carries a disproportionate security burden. Trump, too, has a point.

If Australia's aim is to persuade Washington to remain engaged in Asia a more efficacious approach would be to convince Indo-Pacific partners and allies of the need to up their game on defence and security cooperation. That would be tactically prudent, for convincing doubters in Washington, as well as a shrewd strategic insurance policy. US military pre-eminence and, more importantly, the political will required to deploy forward in support of Asia's 'rules-based order' can no longer be taken for granted. Times have changed.

Julie Bishop's image of regional countries stuck in a 'strategic holding pattern' while the United States clarifies its approach resonated within the room. The challenge for Australia, Singapore and like-minded countries is not to wait, but to take the initiative in drawing the United States in. Senior Trump officials have proved remarkably forward in offering assurance to allies, in Northeast Asia especially. But it is unrealistic to expect the new administration to fill a void in regional security leadership largely of its own creation.

Japan, historically Washington's most reticent military ally, offers an instructive contrast. Shinzo Abe seems to have missed the holding-pattern memo, recently ordering Japan's largest warship to the South China Sea on a three-month deployment. Abe intuitively grasps that demonstrable actions are the currency of persuasion for Trump's transactional approach. It remains to be seen whether Australia will follow suit.